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Authors: Brendan Clerkin

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BOOK: No Hurry in Africa
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‘The whole project,’ he continued, ‘will have to respect our African culture and traditions. We would hope to create a strong social fabric among the villagers themselves, and between the village and the existing population of the area. Nyumbani is labour intensive, and there will be a lot of employment. We hope to train people in useful and traditional skills such as woodwork and woodcarving. There’s a market out there. We already employ around 500 local men and women in a place with no other employment opportunities at all. We will be progressive too. Women will hold many leadership positions, just as they already do in the development of it right now, which—as you probably know—is unusual for Africa.’

Kiragu was wearing a sleeveless jacket and waved his arms a lot as he spoke, as if expending some of his boundless energy. He pushed a folder of documents and plans across the table. With this visionary at the helm, I felt, this dream might just come true. Having drawn breath momentarily, he was off again.

‘One of the major principles in the Nyumbani village concept is self-sustainability. This can be achieved on our 1,000-acre commercially viable organic farm. We will grow subsistence food, cash crops, and medicinal plants. Much can be done through using solar energy. Water for irrigating the farm will be sourced from the construction of dams, boreholes and wells. You’ll have noticed that the work has already begun.’

Through the office window, I could see hundreds and hundreds of busy people scurrying around like ants, heavy loads being moved by ox-carts, and lines and lines of workers digging foundations and irrigation trenches. I was looking at the biggest building site I had ever seen. Kiragu attracted my attention again and said, almost pleadingly,

‘We are desperate for an accountant here, Brendan. Can you start right away?’

He told me that anyone from Kitui District who qualifies as an accountant moves straight to Nairobi, and never returns. It would be impossible to persuade any educated Kenyan to live at Nyumbani unless they were paid extortionate amounts of money. And that, in short, is how I became the management accountant of the whole Village project.

On later occasions, my initially favourable impressions of Kiragu were confirmed. In conversation with him, the simplest thing would spark him into a mesmerising monologue. A vague idea would turn into a detailed plan as his thoughts poured from him, perfectly articulated. He was a good listener too. I told him about self-help projects in Ireland and he listened intently. He was fascinated when I described how the setting up of Credit Unions in rural Ireland helped so many ordinary families to take advantage of developments in the country during the 1960s.

Kiragu’s vision and effortless inspiration added fuel to my innate enthusiasm for volunteering.

Over the next few days, I acquainted myself with the systems in place. My immediate challenge was simple: the faster I could make the project run, the more costs I would manage to save, the more homesteads would be built, and the more people would live there. Who would have imagined that all that auditing and management accounting I had studied at college would actually be so useful so soon? From the start I was immediately stimulated, and threw myself at it, becoming a real part of the management of the project.

Everything was being constructed by hand. There was practically no machinery because there would be nothing to run it on. Most wells were developed by men lowering themselves fifty feet or more down into a dark hole using an ordinary rope tied onto something, anything, even a nearby tree. Then it was a matter of chip, chip, chipping away with a hammer and chisel—some wells could be more than one hundred feet deep. None of the labourers ever thought to ask for safety equipment, not even a helmet. At least, we did not have the crazy scaffolding consisting of tree branches of all shapes that are lashed to buildings several stories high that you see around Nairobi. Health and Safety means something different in Africa.

One of my first tasks in September was counting a month’s wages in cash for 500 people. I was counting over one million Kenyan shillings in total, one note at a time. One shilling is known as ‘a bob,’ twenty shillings is termed ‘a pound’—a throwback to British rule—and ninety shillings roughly equalled a euro. The average Nyumbani wage was the equivalent of two-euro per day, an excellent wage for Kitui, or indeed anywhere in Kenya. Even to have steady waged employment is rare enough.

A mêlée very nearly erupted that first week because the wages were very late. Apprehension was increasing, understandably so. Delay meant the workers’ children could go hungry, and they could not buy seeds to take advantage of the rains that were due and expected any day soon. However, Nancy and I were finally handing out notes to people as they entered our tiny tin office. Towering over us were two burly men with Kalashnikovs, and another two were standing guard outside the door. I found out later they were special military police with shoot-to-kill orders if anybody caused trouble.

The house where I was staying was only a few hundred yards away. It was one of the spartan village homesteads that had been constructed with clay blocks and roofed with red corrugated iron sheets. I shared it with a fluctuating number of Project workers who lived on-site, three of us to a room. It became congested at times. We were the dozen or so non-locals: the Kikuyus, the Luos, the
mzungu,
the Nairobi professionals. We tended to work in management, or were otherwise required to be permanently on-site.

I was glad to discover that there was at least one other
mzungu
living there, a Rasta from Munich named Leo. He was equally delighted to see me. I think he had been going a bit out of his mind in the previous month in Nyumbani because there had not been another Westerner to see things as he did. Leo had dreadlocks to his shoulders; he had a proper goatee but was generally unshaven. He dressed raggedly, yet was the stereotypical German in so many of his mannerisms. Despite his bedraggled appearance, he was very logical and very methodical. He was a kind of living paradox. The Rasta exterior concealed an orderly German soul.

‘The African way of doing things is so unlike the German way,’ he complained.

Leo possessed that element of fun that Bavarian people have; he was fond of a beer as well as the occasional joint to relax him when things proved too much. He had been going round the bend of late because his name sounded like the Swahili word for ‘today,’ and he was forever thinking people were calling him over or talking about him. He was already a good friend of Kimanze, as they worked closely together in trying to build an irrigation system in the sterile land that is Nyumbani. He possessed a restless energy.

Leo told me that, on finishing school, he had arrived in Africa to avoid a year’s conscription in the German army.

‘I really want to make a difference here,’ he told me.

He was innocent, almost naive, in his idealism in my view. I liked to think I was a lot more pragmatic. Yet, we hit it off right away. The Africans liked him too. With his long hair and German nationality, the Africans christened him ‘Jesus Hitler’— apparently without a trace of irony!

Glad that the excitement of payday was over, I wandered down to the tin offices early the next morning. I was whistling a merry tune and waving to people, when I encountered a group of five women. Despite the early hour, they were dancing and singing as they passed by, each wielding a
jemba
(African style spade). At the door to one of the offices, I greeted Nzoki, a stout female Akamba clerk with one crossed eye, who was sweeping out the ever-invading red dust with a bunch of dried reeds. She was quite flirtatious.

‘How is you, Brendan? … How is your family? … How is Sr. MM? … How is your children?’

This volley of questions was followed by a personal inspection.

‘That’s a nice shirt, Brendan. You need a wash, your feet are dirty; a
mzungu
should be clean.’

I thought my feet might have been getting tanned, but it turned out she was correct, they could do with a wash.

‘I must begin work, Nzoki, I’ve a lot to do,’ I replied, terminating the conversation, but pleased with the natural curiosity and spontaneous friendship of these Akamba people.

No sooner had I reached my own tin office than Nancy subjected me to a similar battery of questions and comments.

I turned on the 1995-model computer, and began tapping away on my calculator and writing up a funding report for Kiragu. I was going hammer and tongs at it for nearly an hour when the computer suddenly conked out. The generator outside had stopped. It often did. I strolled over to see what the problem was. The Akamba will see a problem coming, but invariably decide to do nothing about it until it is too late. Kimanze had seen the generator was low on fuel, but waited until it ran out altogether and, as a result, I lost my work on the computer. Only now did he decide it was time to do something about it—more out of a laid-back attitude than anything else.

While I was outside, I took the opportunity to greet Nzoki again. She too was outside, organising a group of workers. We shook hands again as one must do every time one says hello to an Akamba, with their elaborate three part handshake. I needed clarification from her.

‘Hello, Nzoki, would you be able to help me please? Is this a 1 or a 7?’

I showed her a page from a battered copybook with figures handwritten in pencil.

‘How is you, Brendan?’

‘Fine still, thanks.’

‘How is your family?’

‘Well, I still haven’t spoken to them since I came to Kenya— but fine, I’m presuming again.’

‘How is Sr. MM?’

‘Ah, probably an hour older by now, I’d imagine!’

‘And what about your children?’

‘I still haven’t had any children born to me since the last time you were asking.’

‘I see you’ve washed your feet.’

‘Em, you wouldn’t be able to tell me please if that’s a 1 or a 7?’

Nzoki puzzled over the piece of paper for a few moments,

‘It’s neither, Brendan.’

‘So what is it?’

I nearly rolled my eyes.

‘A fraction line, it’s 8/5?’

‘Hmm, that changes all my calculations. Oh well, lucky the generator broke down before I went any further with it. Thanks. See you in a while, my calculator calls.’

I was learning to adjust to the African pace, to accept all their questions, to embrace their ways. Pleasantries always took precedence over productivity.

One of the first things I had to do was to computerise the recording systems. Everything up to then was in copybooks or on sheets of paper. Nobody could easily retrieve any useful or indeed essential information to improve the workings of the project. It frustrated Leo intensely. Everything, from excavating the raw materials for the blocks to cutting and shaping the tin for the roofs, had to be performed on-site.

I quickly realised there would be little point in me putting a whole computerised system in place, only for it to collapse once I left. The other staff, barring Kiragu and his secretary, had never used or even seen a computer before. So I also began to train Nancy and a number of other clerks to type and navigate the computer. In time, they could input the data themselves, and later on again they could begin to use Word and Excel to create and access information they themselves required.

When I finished for the day, I relaxed by dandering down to the dry river and loitering until dusk fell, fascinated by the wildlife. As this was the only place with an abundance of leaves and greenery, all the animals and birds congregated there once the heat seeped out of the day. Whenever I came tramping along, baboons rushed away, monkeys cleared off frightened and chittering, the small deer stared briefly and raced for cover, as did the rock hyraxes, the python, the tiny scampering lizards, the larger monitor-lizard, the pelicans, the birds with shiny white tails two feet long that I did not know the name of, the hyena, the marabou storks, the armadillo type creatures … amongst others.

One late afternoon, I went exploring alone through the vegetation, further up the course of the dry river than I normally would. For one split second, I froze with fear as I espied in the fading light what looked like two young female lions stretched out on the branches of a tree. They spotted me a second later, staring straight at me for what, at the time, seemed like ages, but could not have been more than a few seconds. Suddenly each of them jumped down from the tree. My heart pounded audibly. Luckily, they turned and ran away in the other direction, and I rushed straight back home. Still breathless, I asked Nancy what they could have been.

‘Most likely caracal cats, Bradan, there haven’t been lions seen around Nyumbani in two years.’

There is something special about catching sight of all these truly wild animals in their natural environment, not protected by any national park, and living so close to humans. I used to hide under cover for a long time, motionless, seeing nothing, but when I began to leave, I startled everything again. It took me weeks to realise that David Attenborough might have got it wrong—the trick is to keep walking around making as much noise as you can to frighten everything into moving and betraying its presence. On occasions, baboons growled and barked at me like dogs. I recalled Nancy’s warnings. They were probably stronger than I was, but they would run away regardless after a few seconds.

The people of the Akamba tribe take an easy-going, rather Jamaican approach to work and timekeeping. This would have suited me grand! It was people of the Kikuyu and Luo tribes I was working with in management, though. There is a phrase still heard in Northern Ireland—to be ‘grabbed by the Kikuyus’— which means to be grabbed by the testicles. It originated from the time of the Kikuyus’ ill-fated
Mau Mau
rebellion against the British during the late 1950s. Kikuyus, who are the biggest tribe in Kenya, making up a fifth of the population, are remarkably like the stereotype of the Scottish Presbyterians in their instincts—hardworking and honest, but rather serious and tight with money. The Akambas on the other hand—dare I say it?— can be a bit Irish, with all that that entails.

BOOK: No Hurry in Africa
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