Millions of tiny flecks of glass glimmer amongst a thick layer of burnt orange dust. Shimmering under my feet, the ground somehow looks glamorous. Far removed from the reality of my surroundings. The loud, repeated beep of a Matatu’s horn snaps me out of my brief daydream. They are looking to pick up passengers for journeys to far off places for less than the cost of a Happy Meal. As the Matatu drives away, packed so full a passenger is standing hanging out of the door, the buzz of the small Kenyan town of Njoro is ceaseless.
This relentlessly dusty town is my home for the next 10 weeks whilst I’m participating in a volunteering programme with Balloon Ventures. The aim of the programme is to support local entrepreneurs to start and run innovative businesses, an important task considering 78% of the working population of Kenya operates in the informal sector. When I first arrived here I was hit with a huge wave of culture shock. I wanted to come to Kenya without any preconceptions, but once here, it was a reality beyond anything I could have imagined.
For the first few days the group of 17 volunteers stayed at a hotel and conference centre called Farmers Inn. The brightly coloured bedrooms were separated from the dark corridor by imposing prison like metal doors with clunky bolts and huge padlocks. There were bars across the small windows, which let in little natural light. Even though the water supply was unreliable, we had a western toilet and showers in each room. The grounds of the Farmers Inn were made up of lots of brightly coloured outbuildings. Little paradise huts with straw roofs offered shade from the scorching heat of the midday sun. The luxurious rich green backdrop of grass and tropical trees transported us away. Here it felt homely and safe. Our Shangri-La from the intimidating hustle and bustle of the town.
Leaving Farmers Inn for the first time, our large group walked down the busy main road into the centre of Njoro. Herds of street goats wandered aimlessly across the main road, dodging cars by inches. Were these animals wild? Purely free to roam around, consuming the vast amounts of rubbish scattered around the town? Small children spotted our large group from a distance and started running toward us, dragging their feet with shoes two sizes too big along with them. “How are you?” they cried out in delight. They seemed fascinated by our presence in their town.
Small brick buildings were lined up on either side of the road. They were hard to distinguish from one another. The same small wooden sign with virtually the same business name became a repetitious sight. Shops sold identical products to their neighbours, each displaying their stock safely at the forefront of each building behind iron bars and thick glass. You couldn’t exactly spend hours pursuing these stores at your leisure. Many of the buildings were covered in strips of bright green paint with the word ‘Mpesa’ adorning them proudly. Mpesa is a lifeline here. It’s a sophisticated mobile agent allowing you to not only purchase airtime and data for your phone, but it also presents you with the ability to transfer and withdraw money, pay contacts and other unexpected banking services – all accessed through your mobile phone.
Our group picked up supplies from the supermarket. We then continued walking around the town, trying to find each important location we needed to know for the duration of our stay. The police station, the ‘good’ healthcare centre and a place called Smarty Sacco. Sacco stands for Savings And Credit Cooperative Organisation. It’s a place that provides much needed business and financial services, one of the most popular being loans for businesses. It’s a dependency Balloon as an organisation is working towards reducing, but for now the Sacco seems like a necessity for many here.
As we walked back to the sanctuary of Farmers Inn, large unanimous sounds of bleating caught my attention. A group of about 15 street goats had tightly crowded outside the blue metal gate to someone’s compound. These goats weren’t wild after all. After a day spent freely wondering the streets, these goats had cleverly found their way home. As they called out for their owner to let them in, I stood in ore. Njoro is a town where even the animals know where they belong. Community is ingrained into the social fabric of existence here. People impulsively greet each other as they walk by, church services are loud and exuberantly musical and friendly smiles and handshakes lift your spirits as you walk along the long, uneven roads. The days may be hot and the dust clouds may consume you in a heavy spiral of unpleasantness, but it’s the people that can make or break any experience. After spending the next 10 weeks here, it’ll be the characterful people I meet that I’ll remember the most.
I’ll be posting more about my time in Kenya soon.