From North London to Nairobi

She's always been cynical about charity telethons, celeb fundraisers and, above all, red noses. So could a trip to Kenya help Deborah Ross overcome her prejudices?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I am invited on a trip to Kenya to take a look at some of the projects funded by Comic Relief and, while it is always nice to be asked, quite why they wanted me is anyone's guess. Indeed, as I hotly protested at the time, I've never been to Africa, don't know much about it, and know even less about Kenya, although I often buy their green beans at Waitrose and would suggest, to retain crispness, bringing them to the boil and then instantly removing them from the heat. However, I'm not sure this counts as any kind of a qualification.

I am invited on a trip to Kenya to take a look at some of the projects funded by Comic Relief and, while it is always nice to be asked, quite why they wanted me is anyone's guess. Indeed, as I hotly protested at the time, I've never been to Africa, don't know much about it, and know even less about Kenya, although I often buy their green beans at Waitrose and would suggest, to retain crispness, bringing them to the boil and then instantly removing them from the heat. However, I'm not sure this counts as any kind of a qualification.

And as for Comic Relief, well, I have genuinely mixed feelings. I know it raises lots of money, which has to be good, and draws attention to many issues, which also has to be good, but at the same time I've always felt there is something quite distasteful about it. All that first-world red-nosed japery and then images of flies buzzing round a small child's eyes, which I'm sure they don't do, and have possibly never done, but that is somehow the perception. Plus, but similarly jarring, all those conspicuously wealthy celebrities doing their bit for the ill and poor. Surely it has to be self-serving in some way. On the other hand, I can see that if you took the egotism out of everything no one would ever do anything, or even get up. I guess I am confused as well as ignorant although not, I hope, entirely uncharitable. I can't, for example, walk past a Big Issue seller without averting my gaze and picking up my speed. And as for Children in Need and that Pudsey Bear, I don't exactly hate him, but I still wouldn't mind having a go at poking that other eye out.

Day one

We gather at Heathrow for the night flight to Nairobi. That is myself and a collection of other journalists, some of whom appear to be rather well informed. This is a little worrying but, if pressed, I can talk about beans and, if that doesn't do it, can say I once saw Out Of Africa so know that much of Kenyan life involves hanging about on verandas while looking longingly at the Ngong hills. We are accompanied by three Comic Relief staff: Pontso Mafethe (international grants officer); Jane Lamb (media manager) and Lucinda English (media officer). Pontso, Jane and Lucinda lead us to our gate, Gate 23, but overshoot it so we all have to backtrack. This does not inspire confidence. They all have their special talents - Pontso, it turns out, is very good at killing cockroaches - but I don't think they are natural navigators.

From Nairobi, I discover, we'll be flying directly to Mandera, a small town in the north-east, up by the Ethiopian/Somali border. Once airborne, I look up the area in my Rough Guide To Kenya and find it shaded a dark grey, the legend reading: "Dangerous Area Not Covered In Book". I share this new information with the other journalists. Do we, I hiss quietly, trust Pontso and Jane and Lucinda to take us to "Dangerous Area Not Covered In Book" when they could not take us to Gate 23? We are all going to die. My new companions seem remarkably unperturbed. I can see that I'm the one who's going to have to keep my wits about me on that veranda. I eventually doze and dream of bandits ambushing Pudsey and myself. "Don't take me," I say with typical bravery, "take the bear."

Day two

Arrive in Nairobi where we are met by Abdullah Gessey from EPAG (Emergency Pastoral Action Group), which is supported by Comic Relief and operates in the Mandera area. I pull Abdullah aside. "Now, about this Dangerous Area Not Covered In Book, what's the story?" North-eastern Kenya, he explains, bore the brunt of the Somali refugee crisis in the early 1990s and with it came armed clashes between the various warring clans which still persist. And bandits? "Maybe bandits," he says. This isn't exactly what I want to hear. On to the light aircraft for the three-hour flight. I read Abdullah's copy of that day's newspaper to distract myself from the fact that a) I'm on a light aircraft going over bandit country and b) I am about to die. The Sunday Nation follows the latest corruption scandal, most notably the claim by Sir Edward Clay, Britain's ambassador to Kenya, that the current government tolerates the "massive looting of public funds". No one, I later discover, doubts that they do. There is also a story about a cross-country race marred by obstruction by donkeys - "many did not make the required time because of the donkeys".

We land in Mandera, where it's a quick walk round the red, dusty town, and when I say "quick" I mean just that, quick, as the heat here is a great big walloping thing. It's like walking around under a grill turned to "max". The town is full of donkeys lugging things, piles of rubbish and curious, excited children who want to feel my skin because it's lovely, not just because it is white, whatever anyone else might say. Africa, I note among other things, like the fact that you have to step over the odd decomposing goat leg, is where British brands come to die. There are shacks selling Omo, Blue Band, PK Wrigley's Gum. True, we never had "TicFix - If You Have a Tic Problem Let TicFix Fix it" - but maybe we should have. There are weird, occasional flashes of modern life, like the odd satellite dish. (Satellite dish? Even I don't get satellite telly. Don't give them your money. They are taking the piss!)

Come the evening, we feast on goat with the wonderful Abdullah and some of his co-workers. Abdullah tells us that the goat had been slaughtered only a couple of hours earlier, in our honour. I tell Abdullah that he might have told me that before I'd eaten its liver. We're zonked, so it's back to our guesthouse, which would be charming if it was. It's just a collection of makeshift rooms with a décor that's shabby chic without the "chic". The electricity comes and goes, and largely goes. There is no veranda. The lavatory is a hole. The lavatory is a hole with cockroaches darting in and out of it. I have to send Pontso in there. She does something with the back of a flip-flop that makes a crunchy smack sound. I go to bed. The heat is sauna-like. The pitch black African night makes strange clicking and huffing noises which could be my joints and smoker's lungs but I don't think so.

Day three

Off in 4x4s to an even remoter part, right up against the Ethiopian border, to see an EPAG-funded project. We are given a military escort. The landscape is totally arid, absolutely parched. The so-called roads are phenomenally bad, dusty, full of holes. My coccyx has never known such activity. The pastoralists are the poor, nomadic animal herders who are perhaps the most marginalised and disadvantaged in Africa. Although, as Abdullah says, "They know the country better than anyone, and can go from anywhere to anywhere even at night." They are treated with disdain by the rest of the population, and the government, because they are so poor and uneducated.

Our first stop is at school in Gadadra, an agropastoral community (these are pastoralists who have opted to settle in one place, and have the added disadvantage of being despised by the traditional pastoralists for giving up the nomadic way of life). They live in herios, small round huts of palm, sticks and mud. There are some goats, a few oxen, a few crops. They are entirely dependent on rain. They are pleased to see us, or would be if they had ever seen white people before, but they haven't. The children scream and grab their mothers' skirts. One little boy actually hyperventilates in terror, which is always flattering. I am told that I am the scariest because of my hair.

The school isn't grand. Cement floor, corrugated iron roof, old cupboards, a broken filing cabinet, but it is a school. EPAG has paid for half of it, whereas the other half * had to be paid for by the village, either in money or kind, so that they feel it is their responsibility. They run it themselves with their own governors' and parents' committees. The headmaster takes us into a lesson. Twenty children immediately stand reverentially (20? Only 20? I wish my kid was in a class of 20! They're taking the piss again!). A small, beautiful boy says shyly: "Thank you very much for visiting us and giving us the monies." I feel like the creep I am, having never given anything to anyone in my life.

The elder of the village, a 70-year-old with coal-black skin and bright eyes, says via a translator: "There are two people who are not the same: someone who is blind, and someone who can see. Education is the one who can see. Our children's education is our future." There are tears in those eyes. We play with the children before we go. I ask Abdullah how many of the parents would have been literate. "Oh, zero per cent, I would think," he says.

Next stop, one of the water holes used by the travelling pastoralists. We arrive and encounter the most astounding scene. It may even be biblical. Herdsmen with their sticks. Goats, camels lining up in the incredible light for their drink from the hole. It is both beautiful and moving. It feels like going back to the beginning of time. I ask Abdullah what EPAG does here and it is very simple; they clear silt from the hole. If they didn't, the hole would fill with sand and that would be it, water gone. Water really is a matter of life and death here, water is something to truly worry about.

We head back to the airstrip at Mandera. I have much to think about, like how silly we become once we don't have to fret about survival. I don't think an aromatherapist would do a lot of business here. We fly back to Nairobi, then it's the Hilton. I won't say the Hilton's shower isn't agreeable, or the air-conditioning. And I won't say I particularly miss the "thwack" of Pontso's murderous flip-flop. But it does all seem rather soulless somehow. I turn on the telly and watch a bit of "Living Golf In Association With Rolex". I have to say I don't think satellite telly is all it's cracked up to be.

Day four

We are picked up at the Hilton by Lillian Muchungi, who works with Professor Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement. Professor Maathai was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Apparently, Lillian says, it was down to the professor or the Pope and the professor got it. (The Pope, being a bad loser, has since taken to his bed and has lately not even been turning up for Sunday prayers).

The idea behind the Green Belt Movement is simple yet devastatingly effective. At its heart, women are trained to find native tree seeds, which they grow into seedlings, and which are then planted in Kenya's forests, many of which have been devastated by large, commercial logging companies. If the seedlings survive, the women receive money. It's not a great deal, but it can be enough to, say, prevent a woman from turning to prostitution to feed her children. We are visiting the Gitutu network, in Nyeri District, which is some two hours north of Nairobi. We travel though some wonderfully lush countryside. I tell Lillian that it's hard, seeing this, to imagine that anyone ever goes hungry. She says much of it is owned by multinational corporations who export the produce. I decide this isn't the time to tell her how to cook green beans and retain crispness.

At Gitutu, we are greeted by a welcome song and dance which is a little embarrassing (when are they not?) but also rather magnificent. Terrific voices. A rather large lady, Margaret Wambui, is particularly thankful for Comic Relief's support and keeps hugging me to her coastal-shelf of a bosom. At one point, I think I'll never get out again. I am given a tree to plant, which will forever be named after me. I feel like a right creep again. This place is absolutely amazing, though. Women can request beehives or cake ovens to generate yet more income. The air actually smells of honey and Victoria sponges. They are also encouraged to plant indigenous crops, such as sweet potato, maize, arrowroot, bananas and papaya so they will always have something to eat. Previously, they would grow cash crops, sell when they urgently needed the money - for medicine, say - and then have nothing left.

We stay for lunch and I find myself a boyfriend, five-year-old Linus, who cannot get over himself pictured on the LCD display of my digital camera. He gives me a hug, in spite of the scary hair. There is a very solemn little girl in a peach dress who appears to be in sole charge of an even younger sibling. As we go, I give her my hat, for keeps. It's from Accessorize and cost £3.99 and she is thrilled. She smiles like she'll never stop smiling in a billion, trillion years. Yes, it makes me feel good. Yes, there is egotism involved, but, you know what, who gives a stuff? And I didn't like it much anyway.

Day five

This is our day for Kibera, the famous Nairobi slum. Our guide is Mark Rabudi of Kanco, a national network of organisations focusing on HIV/Aids. Kibera comes at you like a vast sea of sharp, tin roofs. No one is sure how many people actually live here: it could be 700,00; it could be a million. At least 50,000 children are Aids orphans. At least 65 per cent of under 35s are HIV positive. There is no running water, no proper sanitation, scant electricity, no rubbish collection. There is much typhoid, diphtheria, TB and cholera. The government offers no help or services on the grounds that the settlement is illegal and so does not exist. Actually, not entirely true. Dina Saisi, a youth worker, later tells me that the government did try to put in a water pipe, but it was made of the very cheapest plastic and quickly cracked. The result was faecally contaminated water which actually led to an increase in disease.

We enter Kibera with a minder apiece. It's a dangerous place. Kibera is a labyrinthine mosaic of stench, rot, rubbish and dirt-floored hovels made of mud, sticks, tin and even, in one instance, the box from a Goldstar No-Frost Refrigerator. Many inhabitants rely on "flying toilets", which is to say they excrete into a plastic bag and then, at night, throw it out the window. Nice. But there are 10 latrines to every 40,000 people here. Seriously, just think of the queue. Kibera also appears to be bisected by a railway track, which I assume is defunct, as very little children are picking their way across the rails, but then a sensationally fast train comes hurtling through. Unbelievable. I ask my minder, Hilary, if anyone ever gets killed. He says: "The train hoots so the parents know to run and pick their children off the lines." That's all right, then.

The organisation that operates here is Kikoshep, the Kibera Community Self Help Programme. Kikoshep supports orphans and other vulnerable children affected by HIV/Aids, and offers testing and counselling services as well as home-based care and antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. We are taken to see Margarette Abashi, who lives down one of the rank, dank lanes. Then it's down a dark hall into a single room with a bed and what must be her entire wardrobe hung off it. Margarette is 34 and obviously ill. She winces when she attempts to sit up. But she is not as ill as she was last August, when she was essentially dying of Aids. "I was very, very sick. I was not eating anything. I could not walk. Even sometimes I could not talk." She has three sons of 10, 12 and 13. "And they do not like to see me lying down. They say: 'Mum, mum, why are you lying down? Are you in pain?'" Her husband had previously died of what she thought was pneumonia and typhoid, but she can now see must have been Aids. "He was a very romantic man."

Anyway, her family were all for taking her up country, to die, but she was offered daily care from Kikoshep - which Comic Relief supports through Kanco - as well as AVR. She felt better almost instantly. "I take medicine and then I feel I want to eat something, and from there I feel I am improving." Her sons, she says, sometimes go to school and sometimes don't because she can't pay. She is four months behind with her rent. She prays a lot and hopes to one day "look for a job as a house help". She has more dignity ill than I will ever have well. We pay off the rent arrears for her, plus add a few months to buy her some time and let the boys go to school. It isn't much, but I know now even the smallest gesture can make a real difference. I'm a quick learner. You have to give me that.

In the evening, we fly home, arriving back in London on the day the papers are full of the Great Flat Pack Riots in Ikea, Edmonton. Weird. Especially when you are returning from somewhere where people would settle just for the box. Much of what Comic Relief provides is, of course, no more than a decent government would provide, but it doesn't. Certainly, there is much that I won't forget: the watering hole; Margaret Wambui's life-threatening bosom; the smile of the girl in the little peach dress; Margarette Abashi's quiet dignity.

At one point I did ask Abdullah if he ever tries to actually explain what Red Nose Day is to, say, the pastoralists. "I tell them," he replied, "that it is people with humour who want other people to have humour too." That is good enough for me. I will buy a red nose. Maybe two. You, though, can make your own mind up. I've already been to Africa and back. I can't be expected to do everything on your behalf. I'm changed, I think, but I'm not as profoundly changed as all that.

Red Nose Day is on 11 March. Fundraising packs available at