Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

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In short, I found our WWOOFing stint in Kenya to be utterly confounding. Three months on from our October (2009) stint, I find myself with many more questions than pithy quips or verdicts. I hope these anecdotes provide some colour as to why. I didn’t have any grand ambition to get under Kenya’s skin during our mere 6 weeks in the country, but I suspect Kenya’s gotten under mine.

“Hallo Mzungu! How Are you? Give Me Money!”

“Mzungu” is Swahili for ATM.


Actually it means white man, or more broadly, foreigner. Many people we met in Kenya associate foreigners (especially whites) with money. Including our WWOOF host. Who asked us to contribute US$5 a day for food and lodging. Not a large sum. But because it was sprung on us only after we arrived — despite multiple emails exchanged beforehand — and because it goes against WWOOF’s no-cash-exchange principle, it set our stint off to a sour start.

We agreed, giving him the benefit of doubt that finances on Rusinga Island were tough. But we made our view clear, that as WWOOFers we were here to offer our labour and ideas in exchange for food and lodging.

Midweek rolled along, and our host asked us to pay up for the week. We told him we were planning to go to the ATM (half hour away by motorcycle taxi) on the weekend. If we went today, it’d eat up most of our afternoon farming shift at Badilisha.

“Skip your shift today,” our host said.

Evidently his view was now clear as well.

Later on we found out we got off relatively easy. Daniel and Cyrill, our co-volunteers from USA and Germany respectively, got various appeals to finance the schooling of 2 of our host’s grandchildren. And a list of grocery and sundry items anytime either of them went into town.

Just before we left, our host asked if we would donate a month’s worth of sorghum flour for his kindergarten. Babs and I debated the proposition. I’d grown attached to some of the kids during our stint. But something clicked and soured further when Babs pointed out, “The guy owns his house, the guesthouse we live in, and all the land around us. None of us volunteers own a house. And he rents a separate house in Homa Bay (the nearest town 20km away). And he’s making US$5 a day from each volunteer when it must cost less than US$2 a day to feed us, cos that’s what the average daily wage is around here.”

We heard the same requests for money from quite a few people we met while just walking to and from Badilisha or the local trading post. The schtick was pretty standard. “Mzungu! Eh Mzuuuunguuuu! How are you? Can you give me some money?”

Street kids at bus stations aside, many of these kids obviously had a home and a school to go to. That’s what I infer, given they were hollering to us from their front door stoop, wearing school uniforms.

What in their upbringing has signalled that asking for money from strangers as a salutation is acceptable behaviour? Am I just being skint?

“In Kenya We Just Wait”

One evening we were all gathered in our host’s living / dining room, and I asked casually “what’s for dinner?” Our host replied “In Kenya the men never go into the kitchen and ask and find out. In Kenya we just wait.”

There’s a lot of waiting that goes on around here. For the elusive rains to come, to start planting. For foreign donations to kickstart community help programmes. For the arrival of foreign volunteers to staff them. And, so says the crackly radio news every morning, for The Hague to swoop in and “take away in an aeroplane” the perpetrators of bloody violence during the 2007 elections.

I’ve never been good at waiting for anything. But especially not for rain, when the island resides in Lake Victoria, the 3rd largest freshwater lake in the world. What else might be good to go, right there, right then, if only one would stop waiting?

Moving Stationery

Our co-volunteer Daniel had bought 2 packs of pencils as a gift for the kindergarten kids. He walked up the hill with our host and us one morning to gift them. Our host gave one of the packets to my class’s teacher, and told Daniel he’d hang on to the other packet.

“But I’d like to give all of the kids a pencil each,” said Dan.

Our host said it was better for the teacher to hang on to the pencils because the kids would lose them. Daniel stood his ground, asking why not just give the other packet to the other teacher then.

This went back and forth, and admittedly was getting increasingly awkward. Class was starting so Babs and I went to our separate classrooms.

Later, at recess, Babs told me that our host finally came into his classroom with the 2nd pack of pencils. Then went out and ended his conversation with Daniel, who then went off to Badilisha to start his morning shift.

Said Babs: “Then he (our host) came back in, grabbed the pack of pencils off the teacher’s table, and walked out.”

It made me wonder, “Does he really think word won’t get back to Daniel? And if he doesn’t, why not?”

I turned the question on myself: To what extent do my donations to anything go to where I think they’re going? How much effort do I put into finding out what portion of my donation goes to the agency’s staff salaries vs the cause’s recipients? What kind of seeds do programmes hailing “move towards self-sufficiency” actually give farmers? To what extent are they patented one-generation-only seeds, so that the farmers are always reliant on the aid agency for the next season’s crops? Where is the longer-term incentive for subsistence farmers to grow any surplus crops to take to market, if they are constantly up against heavily subsidised food aid?

Or do I consider my work done once I get that warm fuzzy feeling after handing some money over to a philanthropic cause?

“I’m Positive”

I left Kenya pretty much ranting and raving, but I find myself unable to write Kenya off, and nowhere near giving up on WWOOFing (we hope to do some WWOOFing in Japan, New Zealand and somewhere in South America in the months ahead).

Because for every mzungu leech I remember, I can’t forget those that are doing the best they can.

Like my class’s heavily pregnant teacher, walking the half hour every day to and from school even though she was due to deliver the week after we left.

Like the women who sell little piles of tomatoes and onions and little blocks of cooking fat and stalks of sugarcane, from a piece of canvas on the side of the road, with their babies strapped to their hips.

Like 6-year-old Michael Jr, on loan from his parents who live in another town, since his grandfather (our host) fell quite ill a year ago. Michael Jr’s after-school chores include bringing the empty porridge bucket from school back to the house, running to and from the local trading post, setting and clearing the dinner table, helping to drive the donkeys to and from the lake to get water, to the point where he’s always falling asleep in his dinner plate.

Like Esther, a woman we met one day on a village road. She stopped to say hello, and introduce herself, and thank us for visiting and volunteering on the island. And shared a little of her life story. That her husband had died of AIDS. But she and her son do as best they can. “I’m positive, and my son is positive.”

With nary a request for money.

Recounting this episode to our friend Louise in Dubai about a month later, I said, “Quite sunny and scrappy wasn’t she? Her husband’s dead but she’s still positive.”

Babs and Louise both looked at me, incredulous. “She meant she’s HIV positive.”

Good God. I am such a doofus. But my statement stands. All the more.

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Kenyan Goat Feast

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  • First things first. This is not going to be a pretty blog post. As a meat eater I decided it was important for me to experience something like this at some point, to see if I could face the reality of the process of getting meat to my plate. Vegetarians and animal lovers, proceed with caution.
  • This post is dedicated to my Dad, with whom I used to watch Keith Floyd’s culinary adventures around the world. We’d always have a good chuckle at his “wing it and swig it” approach to cooking and life. I’d like to think that Dad watches me undertake my many a hare-brained adventure with a similar bemusement.
  • Finally, this goat feast was very much a team effort. Thanks to Michael Odula for helping us source the goat, Samuel Odula for showing Babs how to kill it with minimal suffering, our fellow volunteers Dan and Cyrill for first raising the idea, co-financing this whopping 1,500 Kenyan shilling (~£13) enterprise, and being amazing comrades-in-arms throughout our stint. Finally thanks to the kids — Michael Jr, Tanya, Gloria et al for being fabulous team players on the day.

So. Our fellow WWOOFer Dan walks into our living room on Rusinga Island in West Kenya one day and says “Hey I heard these WWOOFers back in July bought a whole goat and BBQed it. Are you interested in us pitching in to get one too?”

I say “YES”, probably about as fast as I said yes when Babs proposed. Just possibly a wee bit faster.

And then Babs ups the ante (as he does): “Yes, but only if we buy a live goat and I get to kill the goat myself.”

The week leading up to feast day was surprisingly unhyped. We simply agreed on a budget for a medium-sized goat and our homestay host Michael Odula spent a morning and an afternoon asking around if anyone in the neighbourhood had a goat from their flock for sale. He appointed his youngest son Samuel to help us through the kill.

D-Day. Our goat had arrives before breakfast. We went out to find it chilling out and snacking on a bush. Samuel reckons it weighs about 50kg. I get Babs to pose next to it for perspective.

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Samuel takes the goat out to a stone plateau behind the Odula house and trusses it up. Under his guidance, Babs cuts deep into the goat’s throat with Dan’s camping knife. The key thing here is to cut right through the jugular. It’s a steady hand and a sharp blade, and the goat stops moving in less than 3 minutes. There’s less of a blood spurt than we expected.

Being behind the camera provides a strange sense of detachment but it’s still a fairly intense experience watching my first food-animal kill. I wasn’t sure if I would feel nauseous (I didn’t) or feel huge pangs of guilt (I didn’t either, given the goat had lived outdoors all its life, had a quick death, and we were damn well going to eat it nose to tail.)

It could have been scarier. Had we been with a more traditional tribe, they would have cut a pouch of skin under the goat’s neck to catch the blood, then drink it as part of the ritual. I’m not ready to go that native.

A moment of solemn silence, and then Babs unties the goat in preparation for the next task…

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…Skinning it. This requires some help from Michael Jr (back) and a neighbour (front) to hold up the legs while gentle but firm slits are made down the middle of the belly and down each leg.

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Next, the shoulders are removed at the joints — surprisingly easily, says Babs.

And now to remove the belly flap. This is to be done with great care so as not to puncture the stomach and contaminate the meat with half-digested stomach contents.

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Samuel removes the guts into one neat pile.

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Samuel and Babs section the ribs and joint the legs.

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A neighbourhood dog gets a treat of spleen, lungs and kidneys. Later I remove the hooves and he comes back for those. He proceeds to follow me around for the rest of the day…hoping.

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Samuel and Babs do the initial round of cleaning out half-digested greens from the small intestines. There’s a lot of it. The smell, while not knock-you-out overpowering, is distinct and sticks in your head. Now I can always smell a goat (or their poop) that’s anywhere in a 10m radius.

And now to empty out and scrape clean(ish) the stomach….all 4 of them.

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Samuel and Babs wash and scrape fat from the goatskin, then nail it as high as they can on a nearby tree in the hope that the dogs won’t get to it overnight. Idiotically we forgot this when we left — we’ve asked Cyrill to wear it home to Frankfurt as a cape or something. Very Heart of Darkness, no?

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Mama Odula panfries the liver on her charcoal cooker. The stomach and guts need a long hard soak and scrub before they’ll be ready for cooking. Lunch consists of a stew of whatever goat meat bits that won’t be used for the nyama choma (Kenyan-style BBQ) dinner.

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After lunch I get down to marinading the legs and ribs. Am keeping it simple as Floyd would have done. Wash the meat thoroughly. Place in basin. Pour Coca Cola into basin to tenderise the meat. Swig the rest of the bottle. This cooking with Coke business amuses the kids to no end. Floyd might have used local Tusker beer instead, but there was none available at our neighbourhood trading post.

Anyway, back to it. Divide 4-6 large garlic cloves into thick slices, make deep incisions in the legs, and stuff the garlic into the slits. Rub a generous amount of Royco mchuzi mix, the ubiquitous food seasoning found in these parts… Royco is a Unilever powdered concoction of cornstarch, salt, sugar, coriander cinnamon, fennel seeds, tumeric, ginger, garlic, cumin, methee seeds, flavour enhancers — must be MSG I reckon — and permitted food colouring, whatever that is.

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I rope in Tanya to wave away the flies while the meat soaks.

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Dan and Babs dig a hole for the fire in our “front yard” and pile up twigs and branches by size. We use dried corn cobs and corn hairs for firestarters. Not that I’ve ever had one, but I absolutely cannot ever go back to gas BBQ grills after this.

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Waiting impatiently for the fire to reach optimum heat…

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And away we go! 30 minutes of grilling, turning and basting…

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And then, perfection.

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Samuel was quite keen about grilling the goat’s testicles…unfortunately due to the coarseness of the grill mesh Samuel accidentally dropped both into the flames while cooking them. He was quite despondent.

In the Odula living-cum-dining room, Babs carves up the legs, and Mama Odula brings in the matumbo: chopped up stomach, liver, braided intestines… and tongue(?) stewed for hours in cooking fat, tomatoes and onions (and Royco I’m sure, judging by the colour). I try a little for my honour’s sake, but it holds too strong a taste and smell of grass-half-digested-in-stomach-juices for me. Babs digs it though, having grown up with innards curry.

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Gloria’s had enough talk! It’s time to chow down. Strictly traditional nyama choma doesn’t use any wussy stuff like marinade, so our garlic adds a fabulously novel infusion to the meat.

The ribs — between the Royco and the slow fire — are deliciously smoky. The bits between the ribs could definitely work as a jerky snack.

Mama Odula is well impressed at how tender we’ve kept the meat. Mr Odula asks Babs if he’s ever worked in a restaurant or a hotel.

We spazz out laughing, but we’re pleased at the compliment.

More importantly, we hope we’ve done the goat justice today.

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Just wanted to share a few of my favourite shots from our WWOOF host Catherine’s birthday bash during our last weekend in Orgiva, Spain.

The bandstand amid olive trees at night

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The band, fronting banners borrowed from a friend who designs and exhibits them for WOMAD festivals

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The DJs

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The bar on the back porch — manned in shifts by a series of guests, with the Sierra Nevada as backdrop

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“The beach” – sun loungers brought by UK friends set by the finca’s alberca (water catchment pool and natural swimming pool); shade assembled mostly by Babs, using only poles and string

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The guests

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And of course, the hosts. Happy birthday Catherine. Definitely a summer and a party to remember.

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Take Me Back to BARCA!

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“I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. I’m not coming back. I love you, have a good life.”

So went the text I sent to fellow food dorks Kopibren and Melf the first time I stepped into Barcelona’s massive La Boqueria market on La Rambla a couple of years ago.

I can’t believe I let myself leave. (Who leaves heaven?!) Twice now. On both departures, the ever-unfolding cornocopia of treats both in the market and the neighbourhoods beyond left a growing, grating, gnawing feeling of unfinished business.

The only comfort – this means I’ll have to come back. Again. And again. And again.

Chances are, you’ll get to go before I do, so here are some highlights from what stood out most from my grazing haze. I know there’s plenty more I’ve yet to try, so let me know what made it to the heavenly spheres of your list and I’ll prioritise it for my next pilgrimage.

Boqueria Boogie

The first thing to do in Barcelona (and possibly also the 2nd, 3rd…and last thing) is to do a slow stroll along all the aisles of La Boqueria. The most cunning of visitors (e.g., my parents) rent a short-stay self-catering flat near the market so that their stomachs as well as their eyes can enjoy a VERY well balanced diet.

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Above, left: I’d always wondered what those little caps at the bottom of jamon legs were for. Up in Las Alpujarras, I learned that it was to catch dripping fat. Mmmmmm….

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Above, left: These strange looking tubular-with-a-beak shellfish are called percebes, or gooseneck barnacles. They thrive only on rocks heavily pounded by surf, so harvesting them is quite the task. They’re considered a big-time delicacy in Spain, usually steamed or served in soup. Apparently the Spanish have eaten through their domestic supplies, and now are heavy importers from Canada

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Above: Nice work if you can get it, being surrounded by a mushroom mountain all day

The done thing is to have tapas in the market, but you’ll need to get there early, or else be very patient, or else put sharp elbows to good use. To boost your civility batteries, consider digging into some paella on the perimeter on the market. It also helps you to tour the market without going completely mad or bankrupting myself… I mean… yourself.

This time around we went to Bar-Restaurant Galdric which served an excellent and generous paella for 2 for €22. Last time around I plonked down at a stall in the same area but I forget the name. You can’t miss it if it’s open — look for the colossal paella pan outside.

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Crazy about Chocolate

IMG 0258There are plenty of smoothies, fruit salads and sweets at the market to tempt you for dessert. Or, you could wander a little east along Barri Gothic to Meson del Cafe, and indulge in a little churros and Spanish hot chocolate…the type that’s so thick you could pick it up it with a knife…

The Spanish take their hot chocolate pretty seriously. We learned at the Chocolate Museum in Bruges that back in the day when chocolate was the fashionable and exotic import from South America and available only to the aristocracy, Spanish ladies had their servants bring them hot chocolate even during mass. This to-ing and fro-ing caused so much disruption that hot chocolate was banned from church. Church attendance promptly plummeted.

Tapas Tip

Right. Tapas. Whatever list I put together for now will be grossly incomplete. And the thing is, there are plenty of marquee names that will charge you an arm and a leg (e.g. I’m still working up my wallet’s nerve to go to Cal Pep) and there are plenty of holes in the wall who will serve mediocre bites, microwaved after sitting on the shelf for a wee bit too long.

So, let me just send you to Cervesceria Cataluna in the Eixample distict, my favourite place for variety and value for money. There’s always a waiting list for tables, but the real action is up at the 2 bars. Stalk a bar stool, pounce fast and mercilessly (the locals will give the tourist no quarter) and rotate the 1 barstool among your group if you need to. As long as someone has access to the staff to order food, you be so distracted by the food you’ll barely notice you’re not sitting down.

I particularly enjoyed the grilled cuttlefish, grilled mushrooms, miniature sirloin steaks and burgers.

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Sweet Smelling

I found Papabubble quite by accident, by following the delightful scent of burning sugar down a few doors from our charming Hostel Blue on the bohemian C/ Ample. All the candy is made by hand onsite and make smart looking and tasty gifts for those who didn’t make it to heaven.

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Walking it Off

In between meals, the best thing to do is to walk and soak in the art and the energy of the vibrant city.

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Above: The ongoing building of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia; youths playing football at Parc Guell, also by Gaudi.

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Above: This nstallation down by Port Vell gets a cheeky toilet-paper response on Rambla de Catalunya

Below: My personal favourite, even if I’m the the one being railed against

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Mercat St Josep (La Boqueria)
La Rambla (Liceu station)

Restaurant Galdric
Passatge Virreina 2
08001 Barcelona, Spain
+34 685 580 922

Meson del Cafe
C/ Llibreteria 16 (Jaume I station)
08002 Barcelona, Spain

Cervesceria Catalana
C/ Mallorca 236
08008 Barcelona, Spain
+34 932 160 368

C/ Ample 28
08002 Barcelona, Spain
(Closed in August)

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Where in the world is Wabs?

I’ve added a page (see top row of tabs) with a google map I’ve been working on with details of our route around the world. It’s got both the route we’ve taken so far and also the route we’re planning to take along with the corresponding dates. It’ll be updated as we go, so you can always check our latest itinerary plans on Where’s Wabs?

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